Movies & Television

Former BET CEO Debra Lee Reveals Saying ‘No’ to Aretha Franklin & Oprah

Movies & Television - WWETV Admin Stacy Cummings

Lee, who joined BET as the network’s in-house lawyer in the 1980s and served as CEO from 2005 to 2018 says, “When I stepped down about four years ago, I looked around and there weren’t very many Black female CEOs in the corporate world. I thought I had an interesting story to tell by then, and I wanted to tell my story and be authentic about it. Hopefully, it will inspire others.”


“I didn’t have very many female role models. I never worked for one,” Lee, 68, tells PEOPLE. “The prominent people in my career were always men. So, it was great to get to know Aretha, and I was a little terrified of her at first.”

Lee and Franklin first crossed paths in 2003 when the TV executive was planning to pay tribute to the singer with the Black entertainment network’s Walk of Fame benefit concert. In the run-up to the event, the R&B legend made a series of demands, which included “a full winter wardrobe” and a diamond Harry Winston watch worth $50,000, according to the book. But Lee, who was BET’s COO at the time, says she didn’t agree to all of Franklin’s requests and often negotiated compromises.


She says, “[Aretha] was the kind of celebrity that would call me directly. A lot of artists will call the head of programming or the person doing the musical award show, but she had no hesitation to call me directly.

“I had to learn how to deal with her. Some of her requests I couldn’t say yes to. I had to learn how to say no to her and stand up to her. And I think over time she respected me for that, and we really developed a relationship. So, the song she [sang] when I was in sixth grade, that I used to sing to, ‘Respect,’ really manifested itself in my relationship with her.”

“She always demanded respect, and she handled her financial affairs. She made her own decisions about what she wanted to do and what she didn’t want to do. I was never really sure what she thought of me, but in the end, I’d like to say we were friends.”

In her memoir, the former TV executive also recounts turning down Winfrey’s request to reportedly buy some ad slots on BET to promote Oprah’s cable network, OWN. Lee, who by then was CEO, says she told Winfrey “No,” because the two channels are competitors.

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“It felt not pleasant,” she says of their conversation. “But I also knew I couldn’t let her do that. I wouldn’t let any other Black targeted network buy time on BET. And, as I explained to Oprah, ABC doesn’t let NBC advertise on their network and the same with CBS. It was difficult, but I explained to her my rationale, and I hope in the end that she understood it.”

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